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Brave New World

Brave New World

Brave New World

October/November 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Chris Bathgate, WA523322411

Chris Bathgate’s WA 523322411 (2014) stands about 2 feet tall and weighs in at nearly 58 pounds; Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Try not to blink. Digital fabrication technology is evolving at a blinding speed these days – and there are those who argue it is only going to move faster. If there were any doubt that it represents a momentous technological and cultural shift, the sheer amount of conversation surrounding it should settle that question. With significant change, excitement and anxiety seem to come in equal doses; there’s so much to discuss, so much to imagine, so much to do. And craft artists, for whom making is central, have so much to contribute.

Digital fabrication encompasses a lot of different tools and techniques – and as futuristic as many of them seem, few, if any, of them are actually new. Computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) have been around for decades. Computer numerical control (CNC) machining first appeared in the 1950s; various 3D printing technologies began to take shape in the 1980s. Laser cutting? Rapid prototyping? Not new either. What they are, however, is big news.

A potent mix of factors has recently propelled digital fabrication into the limelight. Patents have expired, notably on 3D printing processes, spurring rapid development. The price of equipment has fallen, making investment in digital fabrication technology more accessible and commonplace. And, alongside our endlessly growing computer savvy, software is becoming more intuitive and easier to use. The barriers to entry are lower than ever before.

A prime example: Earlier this year, Adobe released a version of Photoshop with integrated 3D printing; within the familiar application, users can now build, edit, preview, and print 3D models. The software supports industry-leader MakerBot’s desktop printers and also syncs up with Shapeways, an online 3D printing community and marketplace. (Haven’t been there? Think of it like an Etsy, with individual shops – except all of the works are printed on demand, and you can also upload your own designs for printing and/or sale.)

3D printing is not the whole of digital fabrication, not nearly, though it is certainly grabbing the most attention right now. And the technology is exciting – it’s dazzling. “The whole process is almost magical to watch,” Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, wrote for Wired. In a recent editor’s letter, Martha Stewart could be found crowing over her new printer and showing off a tiny replica of a piece of cast-iron cookware. Commentators, columnists, and CEOs alike envision the tech disrupting the mass-production model, upending the economy as we know it.

How big and meaningful will the impact be? Only time will tell. But digital fabrication already has captured something more valuable than market share: our imaginations. It seems possible, inevitable even, that this technology will change how we make – and how we think about making. For artists and craftspeople, these are critical and captivating unknowns.

Myths and surprises
For those already intimately involved with making, perspectives are nuanced. “Many people, who are not familiar with CNC tools or even 3D printing, have a perception that these tools function in such a way that all one needs to do is simply hit a button, and out pops a perfectly fabricated work of art,” Chris Bathgate says. “Even though many of these tools are marketed that way, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Bathgate is a self-taught metalworker, machinist, and machine-builder, whose studio is home to two CNC metal lathes, a CNC milling machine, and a 3D printer, along with CAD, CAD/CAM, and other 3D modeling software. 

“I spent the better part of 10 years researching and building my own equipment, while learning the finer intricacies of machine work,” Bathgate says. The most interesting aspect of digital fabrication technology, in his view, is the “unexpected ways it allows your work to grow and transform,” he says.

“Something to consider is that the one thing these tools do best is something artists do the least – I am referring to building the exact same thing over and over again.” Automated repetition sounds handy, but, in practice, it’s a boon only in specific scenarios (such as a project that involves repetitive labor or many identical parts). More likely, an artist’s work is always changing – and each new work raises a question: Is the time required to adapt or reprogram a digital tool worth it? Because it takes time. Sometimes a lot. 

Asking that question, Bathgate has found, has intrinsic rewards. “It forces us to justify the creative choices we make,” he says. What once might have been a matter of instinct or gut feeling – reaching for a particular tool, for example – becomes an analytical process. And, in the end, “dedication to logistical problem solving can foster an appreciation for our creative intuition,” Bathgate says, “as we are forced into logically assessing what our gut is telling us.” 

Jeweler Arthur Hash echoes the idea that, for the artist, digital fabrication requires commitment on par with any craft. 

“So the blacksmith that has spent years honing their craft is somehow better than someone who has spent years learning code, learning CAD, building their own 3D printer or CNC, and making work?” he asks. To him the argument is nonsensical. “This technology requires the same, if not more, investment of time to learn and explore.” 

Hash has been a visiting professor and coordinator of the MakerBot innovation center at SUNY New Paltz, and recently became an assistant professor at Appalachian State University, where he is also the metalsmithing and jewelry design area coordinator. He came to digital fabrication at a relatively early age; his high school offered both AutoCAD and shop classes, and encouraged an interdisciplinary approach. Currently, the artist employs a suite of technologies: laser engraving on enamels, wax 3D printing for casting precious metals, CNC technology for making tools, and CAD for technical layouts and 3D drawing projection. He attributes their successful integration to years of hand skills – and common sense. “With experience you know when to use [technology] and when it is not needed.” 

Hash gives the example of wanting to make an object you’ve never made before, maybe a complex hinge or universal ball joint. Even if you can see the object in your mind, without having ever built one, drawing one on a computer – let alone producing a working prototype – would be a challenge. Research would be required, regardless of which way you ultimately approach the task. “You may come to discover that using traditional fabrication/ non-technological methods would be faster,” he says, “and you would learn a lot more.” 

But digital integration is inevitable, Hash adds: “Some of this technology is moving at breakneck speed.” He gets excited when he sees people new to digital fabrication grasp its potential and run with it. He recalls a workshop he recently taught at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, where he had students use a laser engraver as a new method of mark-making on enamel. “I think it totally blew their minds.” 

New avenues 
For those artists and makers who make the investment, digital fabrication tools offer intriguing new possibilities for how objects are created and distributed. 

Future Retrieval is a collaboration between Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis. Hailing from a ceramics background, they use 3D scanning and digital manufacturing of found forms, which are then carefully molded and constructed in porcelain, to recontextualize objects from the history of decorative arts. Their Grand Theft Lion, for example, was 3D-printed from photographs of Johann Gottlieb Kirchner’s Lion, designed for Germany’s iconic Meissen factory, circa 1732. 

3D scanning or photographing a historical object, in some ways, isn’t so different from the accepted practice of sketching or painting in a museum. But their photography equipment is low-grade, and sometimes objects on display are partially obscured behind glass or stanchions. Those limits become part of their process, and, in the end, “the missing data becomes as interesting as the actual piece itself.” 

For Parker and Davis, data is powerful. “The greatest potential of these tools is the file,” they report. “Having an exact copy of something to be able to manipulate, change, and reprint in a variety of materials is exciting.” Digital files, they note, also take up only virtual space in the studio, unlike their bulky molds and prototypes. 

Like many users of digital technology, Parker and Davis characterize it as one more tool, rather than an end in itself: “There is definitely a back-and-forth between the hand and the machine.” Digital fabrication allows them to “skip a step” in terms of producing a copy of a found or historical object, but then they go back in and painstakingly make molds of that object by hand. 

“You can’t have one without the other,” according to Parker and Davis. “A computer can’t solve all the problems when it comes to making a piece of art or a product, but there is no arguing that technology is making both easier.” 

Bathsheba Grossman would agree: 3D printing has been the sculptor’s primary medium since 1997. She initially turned to it because her mathematically complex designs were difficult to make molds of. “In most cases I don’t see 3D printing as being competitive with hand craftsmanship at all: They do different things,” she says, noting that 3D printing remains limited in its material palette, finish quality, and ability to combine materials. But it can accomplish some design feats that are “difficult, impossible, or just expensive to reach by hand.” 

Grossman was the first person to open a shop on Shapeways. (“They sell sculpture while I’m sleeping, and I have yet to see a better offer than this,” she says.) It’s not her primary income stream, but “it’s not a far stretch for me to imagine a day when my Shapeways store is my main store, and I think both they and I would regard that as a successful outcome.” 

Even so, Grossman is skeptical of the future some ardent digital fabrication evangelists predict. “Sometimes people talk about a post-3DP world in which everything is disposable and printed on demand, but I like to imagine 3DP artists producing heirloom artifacts, using the unique capabilities of the medium with precious materials in a craftsmanly way,” she says. “The future is big: There’s room for both approaches.” 

Ron Labaco, curator of the Museum of Arts and Design’s “Out of Hand” exhibition, told design site Core77 that when he began research for the groundbreaking survey, he recognized “a dramatic shift in the way that digital technologies were being accepted as tools of creative expression.” We are now in “a post-revolutionary period,” Labaco says, “with the achievements of the last few decades taken for granted and even expected in the creative industries.” No longer notable for the sake of innovation itself, digital technologies are here to stay. 

New virtual reality 
If technology is changing how we make, it is most certainly also changing how we talk about making – and how we intellectually approach the task. 

“Digital technologies open up a whole new way of collaborating across vast geographies,” observes Anna Walker, curator of “Ctrl + P.” The tech-savvy show, which was organized by the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, focused on the impact of technology on the production of sculptural and functional objects. “Designing something in a virtual world and the ability to send, share, and manipulate with many different artists offers exciting possibilities for the field,” she says. 

Walker, now a Windgate curatorial fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is most engaged by work that tackles digital technology’s wider implications, from personalization to authorship and replication. She points to artists such as Cat Mazza, who developed knitPro, a free web application that translates digital images into knitting and needlework patterns, in the sharing spirit of yesterday’s sewing circles. (Mazza used the program for her microRevolt project, which reclaimed corporate logos and positioned textiles as a medium to protest sweatshops.) 

“The real possibility comes with customization and sharing of designs through the internet and open-source platforms,” Walker says. “Craft has historically been about customization, and because of that, craft artists are poised to harness these digital technologies and their maker culture as a friend of the field.” 

Joshua G. Stein of research and design studio Radical Craft is also co-founder, with Del Harrow, of Data Clay, a group of artists, designers, and architects interested in the intersection of new digital techniques and ceramics – or more precisely, the repercussions of that intersection. Stein is a professor of interior architecture, Harrow of art. They aim to push past “the novelty of the simple collision of the digital and ceramic worlds” to bigger queries – for example, how we understand historical artifacts when they can be reproduced with digital technology. 

In Stein’s experience, “digital fabrication renders the material world more accessible and meaningful.” He points out – not unlike the creative insight Chris Bathgate derives from logistical problem solving – that modeling a form digitally, with the goal of producing a real-world object, requires a keen attentiveness to all of the properties of the intended material. Take, for example, clay. “One must be conscious of the movement, expansion, contraction, and slumping that occurs during the drying and firing phases,” Stein says. Potters think about such material things all the time; coders, whose expertise lies elsewhere, could easily ignore them. 

But when those two seemingly disparate worlds connect? “Makers, coders, and hackers [are empowered] to tackle increasingly complex and sophisticated projects,” Stein says. And the future is fascinating. “We can increasingly coax and influence the behavior of materials that move – like clays or woods that deform according to humidity – that previously seemed unknowable or unmanageable.” 

Looking forward 
Across mediums and among approaches, there is one steady refrain: Digital fabrication technology does not threaten craft – it enriches it. And craft, in turn, can improve the digital. 

“As artists, we have the luxury of contemplating how leveraging these tools can add both complexity and meaning to what we do,” Bathgate says. “We aren’t just cranking out widgets, we are using the fabrication process to create objects that are deeply meaningful to us: We can use the experience we gain to look for personal insights, and try to assemble a broader understanding of how the tools themselves fit into the human story and apply that back into our art.” 

We’re just at the beginning of this journey, observes tech-savvy furniture maker Christy Oates, who first became im-mersed in CAD/CAM during her MFA thesis semester, when she approached a manufacturing company and offered to work in trade for laser cutting. The experience “opened my eyes to what these machines really can do,” she says. This past June, Oates was a featured artist in the digiFabulous programming at the Furniture Society’s annual conference. 

“Up until this decade, these tools were only being used in machine shops,” Oates observes. “Now, as the price point drops, everyone can get access to the tools.” And accordingly, our knowledge of them will deepen: “There is an intimacy in working with a tool every day – you find out what it can and, most importantly, what it cannot do.” 

“I think we need to be critical of when and where we use digital versus hand techniques,” cautions Stein. “The fetishization of any tool is exactly that – and it rarely produces results that remain of interest for any length of time. That said, given the new tools that have become available to us, I think we have a certain obligation to test their limitations, to learn their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncracies.” 

Last year, artist Stacy Jo Scott and Del Harrow curated “New Morphologies” at Alfred University, seeking to expand what we expect from the intersection of making and digital technologies. “What most excites me about digital fabrication are the ways in which it continues to enact our very human striving to bring form to an ideal,” Scott says. 

“When we begin creation with the physical tools of ceramics, for instance – clay, a wheel, plaster – we have referents that are easily transferred to our everyday experience; we can see them before us and put our hands on them.” Digital creation may lack those real-world referents, Scott says, “but it calls on something that is as basically human and primal as when we first put our hands on clay. It is a call to bring order, form, and pattern to what had been open space.” 

And in this brave new digital world, that suggests craftsmanship is more essential than ever. 

Julie K. Hanus is senior editor for American Craft.